Nobody can dispute the value to a child, whether in the foster care system or not, of having a permanent family. In my forty-something years of working within the child welfare system, the public policy shift to safety, wellbeing and permanency has been fantastic, absolutely in the best interest of kids within the system.
In the past 15 years, the number of children and youth in the foster care system has dropped by around 27 percent. Much of this is attributable to moving kids quickly to permanency. We have much to celebrate during National Adoption Month because increased adoptions has been one of the most substantial outcomes of this policy shift.
I seriously wish that I could unequivocally state that the decision-making behind permanency was completely altruistic, driven by what’s best for kids. But that wouldn’t be true. It was about money! You see, foster care is expensive, especially the very bad practice of keeping children lingering in foster care, often until they “age out” of the system.
So even though shifting away from that practice has been great for kids, the motive behind this shift was something altogether different. Unfortunately, money is still the primary driver of public policy for children and youth in the foster care system.
Another example of monetary motivation is the Continuum of Care Reform process currently being undertaken by the California Department of Social Services. This, too, has the potential to produce excellent outcomes for children and youth in the foster care system; but it was precipitated by the state wanting to reduce its foster care cost, especially for group home placements after losing a major lawsuit on group home rates. As Bob Dylan sang: “Money doesn’t talk, it swears!”
In the rush to save state and federal dollars by quickly moving children to permanency, a huge issue has emerged which could potentially negate any cost savings to the public coffers. There is a growing body of evidence indicating that while ensuring safety and achieving permanency are very important, child “wellbeing” is not being properly addressed.
Bryan Samuels, former Administration for Children, Youth and Families Commissioner for President Obama and current CEO of Chapin Hall, made strong arguments on this subject in a 2012 memorandum to states:
“Increasing the focus on Wellbeing is not a move away from the child welfare system’s essential emphasis on safety and permanency; rather an integrated approach is needed. Policies, programs, and practices can improve children’s social and emotional functioning while concurrently working towards goals of reunification, guardianship, or adoption. Addressing the social and emotional elements of functioning for children in foster care will improve permanency outcomes. For example, a study of adoption recruitment services demonstrated that, in addition to intensive recruitment efforts, ensuring that children receive effective behavioral and mental health services is critical to facilitating a smoother transition to an adoptive home, and can decrease the chances of a disruption of an adoption (Vandivere, Allen, Malm, McKindon, & Zinn, 2011).”
Those of us who provide therapeutic, trauma-informed services to foster children and youth know how absolutely essential it is to commence the healing/treatment process before the move to permanency, especially to an adoptive family, in order to ensure a large measure of success. But guess what – these services cost money! With public policy primarily determined by the “bottom line,” will it take yet another lawsuit to make sure traumatized, vulnerable children and youth receive the proper care they need?
Great strides have been made towards achieving permanency for foster children and youth. Now, let’s keep the fires burning under the politicians and policymakers to make sure these children and youth receive the mental health services they need to achieve wellbeing and lifelong success.
Jim Roberts is the CEO and founder of the Family Care Network and a 42-year veteran of human services.